For a long time, Camille Seaman's mantra was: "Why not?"
Why not give up a seat on a flight in exchange for a voucher? Why not use that voucher to check out Alaska? Why not walk out on that thin ice? What's the worst that could happen?
"I think sometimes ignorance allows you a bravery and courage," she says on the phone, "where if you had known, you would never do it."
Bravery, naivete, ignorance — whatever the word, it resulted in a decade-long project on icebergs, which has been circulating widely in recent years. Seaman was named a TED fellow in 2011. And just this past weekend, she was a keynote speaker at the Look3 photo festival in Charlottesville, Va.
It all started, she often says, with Sept. 11. The twin towers, which had been a consistent feature in the background of her teenage photographs, were now gone.
"We have pictures of our great-great-grandparents who we never met and we can only imagine what their life was like," she says. "I saw those pictures that I had of the World Trade Center as proof that those buildings existed."
That got her thinking about photography as a historic document. The problem? She wasn't really a photographer.
"I thought everybody did photography, and photographers in magazines were this special, elite group of people that the gods had touched," she says. "And I didn't see that as my reality."
But ... why not?
So began her relentless pursuit of icebergs, both in the Arctic and in Antarctica. Like the twin towers, she saw them as monuments that might one day fade from the horizon.
"I approach photographing these icebergs as if I am making portraits of my ancestors," she says in her TED talk, "knowing that in these individuals moments, they exist in that way and will never exist that way again."
Seaman has a humble and reverent way of talking about her work, the icebergs themselves, and the context that surrounds them. Her vantage point can be traced back to her paternal grandfather, a Shinnecock Native American, who trained her to see, she says:
"From the age of 5, I had to sit outside for an hour after school every day," she recalls. "And after an hour, he'd call you in and he'd say, 'What did you see?' "
In her photography, Seaman takes it a step further: "I want people to not just see what I saw, but to feel what I felt when I was there. ... I need to do something that's affirming that life is beautiful. That there's something positive to fight for."
She has recently moved on from icebergs. "I've done whatever I can do," she says. "Twelve years is a long time to spend any kind of attention on icebergs. It's cost me personally, like relationships. I'd like to say it was worth it, but I feel the costs of it."
Her new focus, which you can see on her website, is clouds. Why clouds?